Reviews | Dobbs, Roe and the myth of “bodily autonomy”


“We hold that Roe and Casey must be struck down,” the Supreme Court said Friday in its majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It’s breathtaking, really. The fight against abortion that has raged for as long as I can remember has taken a decisive turn. The wide range of emotions in reaction to this decision – from outrage to jubilation and everything in between – will be on full display for weeks and months to come. Our feelings about this decision are important. But it is also essential that we continue to examine and clarify the merits of the abortion arguments.

“Bodily autonomy” has become a major argument against abortion restrictions. Referring to abortion restrictions as “forced birth” is common among abortion rights advocates. Julie Rikelman, who argued for abortion rights in Dobbs’ arguments before the Supreme Court, said abortion rights are grounded in “freedom,” which includes the right “to self-reliance.” physical, including the right to terminate a pre-pregnancy viability. The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs rightly rejects the idea that bodily autonomy rights are expansive and absolute, and therefore necessitate abortion rights.

Of course, injustice is often written all over the bodies. And injustice towards women in particular often manifests itself in a lack of power over our own bodies. We see this in multiple ways. A 2021 United Nations report found that nearly half of all women in 57 developing countries are denied bodily autonomy, with violations including rape, forced sterilization, virginity testing and mutilation female genitals. In American culture, women’s bodies are often seen as valuable only for their sexiness and beauty. Violence is a constant threat to women’s bodies, with one in five women victims of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime and nearly one in four women victims of domestic violence. To have a just society, we must ensure that women’s bodies are protected and safe, and women – like men – must be able to make decisions about their own bodies.

Yet how we understand and define bodily autonomy has profound implications for our debates about abortion and how we understand what justice for women looks like. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision recognized that there is no inherent right to abortion that arises from a commitment to liberty or autonomy, in part because “abortion is fundamentally different, because Roe and Casey recognized, because it destroys what these decisions have called “fetal life” and what the law before us describes as an “unborn human being”.

Here are three reasons why I find abortion rights arguments that appeal to bodily autonomy unconvincing and ultimately harmful to our understanding of freedom and what it means to be human:

1. Bodily autonomy is limited by our obligation not to harm others. We already recognize in law that there are limits to physical autonomy. You can’t walk naked down the street, even if you really want to, or drive 120 km/h in a school zone, even if slowing down is a burden on the driver.

These limits were alluded to in Dobbs’s pleadings. Twice, Judge Clarence Thomas referred to a case in which a woman was convicted of child neglect for ingesting harmful illegal drugs while pregnant. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court in Dobbs also addresses this point, saying that a call for autonomy, “at a high level of generality, could grant basic rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, etc.” Our desires to do what we want with our bodies must be respected, but they must also be limited by the needs and rights of others, including those who live inside our own bodies.

2. The term “autonomy” denies the deep interdependence and limitations of each human body. One definition of autonomy is “independence”. But no human has complete bodily autonomy from birth to death. The natural state of human beings is to be deeply and irrevocably interdependent with each other. The only reason any of us are alive today is because someone cared for us as children in the womb and then as infants and toddlers. Almost all of us, through age or disability or both, will eventually depend on other human beings – other human bodies – to bathe, dress, feed and care for us.

A child in the womb depends on a mother for life in a way that places a unique burden on a mother. But this burden does not end at birth. Parenthood – at any stage – is a tough one. A one-year-old baby is dependent on adults for food, protection and care in ways that can be deeply distressing, but we can’t invoke ‘bodily autonomy’ as a reason for neglecting a baby’s needs. one year old child. Abortion seems to punish a fetus for its lack of bodily autonomy and negate the deep trust that all of us who have bodies hold.

This deep interdependence that we all share comes with obligations to one another. We don’t always choose how our body depends on others. And we often don’t choose the obligations placed on our lives by others who depend on us. Covid has highlighted the fact that our bodies and our bodily health depend on the choices of others. I criticized those on the right for choosing to get the Covid shot as an entirely individual decision. This kind of individualistic rhetoric is the very logic of autonomy – that people can do whatever they want with their own bodies without worrying about their obligations to others. But human bodies, unlike machines, are simply not self-sufficient. Our choices about our own body impact the bodies around us.

3. The pressing question in abortion is whether championing “bodily autonomy” requires us to override or undo biological realities. In Dobbs’ closing arguments, Julie Rikelman described what women experience if they do not have access to abortion: “Allowing a state to take control of a woman’s body and force her to submit to the demands physical, risky and life-altering consequences of pregnancy is a fundamental condition. deprivation of his liberty. »

But is restricting abortion the same as forced gestation? Is it correct to compare restrictions on abortion to a state “taking control” of a woman’s body and deprivation of liberty?

Whatever one thinks of sex and what it is for – whether it is a sacred act or merely recreational pleasure – we can all agree that sex is the only human activity that has the power to create life and that any potentially procreative sexual act therefore carries a certain level of risk that pregnancy may occur. (Birth control greatly reduces this risk but does not eliminate it entirely since birth control methods can fail.) Yet the state does not impose this risk to produce human life; biology does. Except in the horrific circumstances of rape or incest, which account for 1% of abortions, women and men both have bodily power and choices about whether they will have sex and therefore whether they are ready to accept the risk of a new life that ensues.

Our bodies undeniably place a disproportionate reproductive burden on women. There is an inescapable asymmetry between male and female bodies when it comes to creating and carrying life. To address the particular difficulty pregnancy poses to women, we need to hold fathers more accountable through child support laws. And we need to create a culture that doesn’t shame women for unwanted pregnancies, but supports them with women-friendly policies like paid parental leave, access to affordable childcare, health care free health and other measures. Yet the state, in the end, cannot and should not save us entirely from the known realities of human biology.

A sperm and an egg unite to become a human being inside a woman’s body. The state does not force this to happen any more than it forces aging or weight loss from exercise or forces the lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

To use the language of forced gestation or of a state “controlling” women’s bodies is to portray biology itself as oppressive and arresting the natural course of the body as the liberating role of the state.

For both men and women, bodily autonomy does not mean that we can do what we want, when we want, with our own bodies without natural consequences or obligations to others. If this is what we mean by “autonomy,” then no one can advocate bodily autonomy without ultimately advocating evil.

I recently came across a blog post by literary scholar Alan Jacobs describing Simone Weil’s insistence that “if we need a collective statement of humanity rights, we also, and perhaps more desperately, need a declaration of obligations.” I find that wonderful. Speaking as a woman, with a woman’s body, I want security and freedom for all women. I want women to be full participants and empowered leaders in public life. I believe that we, as human beings and bearers of the image of God, have the right to bodily integrity, protection and freedom.

But these rights also carry obligations to others, perhaps especially to the vulnerable agencies that depend on us. This is the heart of the abortion question: what are our obligations to each other? We have an obligation to unborn children. We have an obligation to pursue the safety and development of women. For too long these obligations have been pitted against each other, but they don’t need to be, and to move forward we must create a world where they never will be.

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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, Watch, or Cry.”



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